Learning environmental science… in the field!

As a current graduate student and someone who has (relatively) recently completed an undergraduate degree, I feel oddly qualified to comment on the impacts that chronic underfunding has on undergraduate geography programs. In my experience, the biggest and most significant loss when the fiscal belt tightens often tends to be field or lab components of undergraduate courses. Why? Because it’s an easy place to trim and ultimately lessens the workload for individuals within the department. Win-win? Sure, unless you’re an undergraduate student…

Having completed my BSc at a small (<4500 students total) research university, many of my courses included a significant lab or, more often, field component. Perhaps this was due to location and the abundance of field sites or perhaps it was due to the teaching philosophy of the professors and instructors. Either way, it was beneficial and in hindsight, does not appear to be the norm.

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As I continue to plunk away at towards completing my graduate degree, I realize more and more that the information I retained most from undergrad courses was not from the 3-hr lectures but from the hands-on components of courses. To some extent this could be due to the type of learner I am, but upon discussion with other recent graduates in similar fields I believe that is not the case. The practical skills and application of theories outside of the classroom benefits most students learning and also creates a camaraderie between faculty, staff and students that can be hard to build.

But the big questions is: how can we save the aspects of courses that many find so valuable and rewarding?

Ideally, adequate funding would be provided for departments to run and fund courses containing large fieldwork components. The hiring of lab/field instructors is also an issue that can be alleviated with proper funding. The commercialisation of Canadian universities and the constant underfunding needs to stop. Universities need to do a better job of standing up and touting their benefits rather than rolling over and playing dead when government underfunding occurs.

But the paradigm of undergraduate education at research intensive universities also needs to change. The extra work required to organize field aspects of courses needs to be acknowledged by the respective administrative units and rewarded appropriately. Students need to demand an increase in experiential learning. In programs as diverse as geography, having hands on experience and skills sets you apart from other recent graduates in the job market, it allows you to sell yourself better to prospective employers and it allows you to gain valuable field skills should you continue on in academia.

To be fair, there are quite a number of professors, instructors and other educational staff that already do put in the extra work required to execute successful lab and field courses; and kudos to them. However, this seems to be the exception rather than the norm and it seems we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

I suppose this begs the questions: why are universities so heavily set against change? And why are institutions so often lagging behind in contemporary teaching methods? But those are questions for another day…

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